Chromebooks are some of the most lightweight, affordable laptops around, but what exactly are they and should you consider buying one?
Ultimately, it depends how you’re going to use your laptop. If you’ll mostly be browsing the web, working on documents and streaming video, then a Chromebook could be perfect – and very affordable.
However, if you’re interested in advanced photo and video editing, gaming, or any other task that requires specialist software then you’ll need a Windows laptop or MacBook instead.
You can spend over $1,000/£1,000/AU$1,300 on a Chromebook with powerful hardware, but it still won’t be able to run software from outside the Google Play and Google Chrome Stores. At that price range there are no advantages over a Windows laptop.
Our guide on Black Friday laptop deals: how to get the best model for the best price has more advice on getting a Chromebook on the big day.
Software for Chromebooks
The key difference between Chromebooks and other laptops is the operating system. Rather than Windows or macOS, Chromebooks come with Google Chrome OS installed. This is rather like a mobile phone operating system and can only run apps from the Chrome Web Store or the Google Play Store.
That might sound restrictive, but there are thousands of apps to choose from and all the basics are covered. For text documents, spreadsheets and presentations you have Google Docs, Sheets and Slides; for quick photo editing you can use Adobe Photoshop Express; and for movies and TV you can choose from Google Play Movies, Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video.
If you need specialist software, however, then a Chromebook isn’t the laptop for you. For example, if you’re a photographer or designer who relies on the full version of Photoshop then you’ll need a MacBook or Windows laptop. Serious gamers will also need to stick with Windows – though there’s a great selection of fun games in the Google Chrome Store and Google Play Store for casual players.
You can use a Chromebook offline, but they work best when connected to the internet. Chrome OS will update silently in the background when you’re online, and your documents sync to your Google account so you can access them anywhere.
There are two types of Chromebook: traditional laptops, and two-in-one devices that convert into tablets. Most Chromebooks have touchscreens, but those that don’t won’t work as well with apps downloaded from the Google Play Store, as these are designed chiefly for mobile devices.
Chrome OS can run on less powerful hardware than Windows 10 or macOS, which means Chromebooks are often more affordable than other laptops. For example, the Asus C300M is a great little Chromebook that comes in at under $250/£200/AU$300 – ideal for a student budget.
A cheaper Chromebook will have relatively little storage space – typically 32GB or 64GB. This is fine if you’re using Google Docs, Sheets and Slides for your work, because all your documents will be saved to the cloud rather than your device. It’s also not a problem if you’re streaming video and TV shows.
If you want to keep large files on your device like photos and videos, you’ll need to add an SD card (most Chromebooks have a slot for one) or connect an external HDD or SSD. There are some premium Chromebooks with more storage, like the Google Pixelbook, but for the same price you could get a Windows 10 laptop with equally good specifications.
You can hook a Chromebook up to a printer using Google Cloud Print, or to a TV using Chromecast, but you won’t be able to hook up hardware that needs its own drivers (like security cameras and scanners, for example).
If that's not an issue for you and you don't need any niche software, then opting for a Chromebook could save you a lot of money when you're buying your next laptop.
- View our list of the best Chromebooks of 2018